One of the reasons employers sometimes require employees to enter into an arbitration agreement is that it eliminates the risk of having a jury decide the outcome. However, a Virginia judge recently ruled that an employer must have a jury trial on the issue of whether or not the employee is even required to arbitrate his or her claims. Davis v. Young & Associates, Inc., No. 1:20-cv-00061 (W.D. Va. 9/15/21) (Abingdon Div.)
The case arose out of an employment discrimination claim filed by Toni Davis, a supervisor at a Shoney’s restaurant in Abingdon, Virginia. The employer responded to the lawsuit by filing a motion to compel arbitration. Shoney’s relied upon an agreement it claimed Davis signed when she was hired in 2016. The agreement stated the Davis agreed that “any legal dispute … arising from or relating to my employment” must be “resolved exclusively through binding arbitration before a neutral arbitrator.” The document contained a signature that appeared to read “Toni Davis,” had the name “Toni Davis” printed on it, and was dated August 17, 2016.
In response to the Motion to Compel Arbitration, Davis provided a sworn affidavit stating that “to the best of my knowledge, information and belief, I did not sign” the agreement Shoney’s relied upon. She also attested that “to the best of my knowledge, information and belief, I did not sign any documents agreeing to arbitrate claims that arose during my employment with Shoney’s in August 2016, or at any other time thereafter.”
Although the Court found that the “plain unambiguous language of this agreement covers the parties’ dispute,” it nevertheless denied the Motion to Compel Arbitration. According to the Court, Davis’ sworn statement that she did not sign the agreement was sufficient to create a dispute that must be resolved by a jury.
The Davis decision is troubling for any employer that intends to rely upon an employee’s signed agreement as a defense to an employment claim. For example, an employee may be able to create issues as to whether he or she signed a disciplinary action, received an employee handbook, or signed a non-disclosure agreement. If an employee can create a genuine issue of material fact merely by denying that it is their signature on document, it will be very difficult to resolve a claim on a dispositive motion.